‘I can see the sea!’ cried Miffy. – Dick Bruna, Miffy at the Seaside
We hoisted our packs on our back for one final time and set off from Watten for John O’Groats today, our last day, with the warm wishes of Kathryn from Loch Watten House B&B ringing in our ears, and many goodwill messages of support from friends and from home.
And today as we walked towards the Watten crossroads, we were sensible of strong and very mixed feelings: huge energy, enthusiasm and excitement about this being the last day, and also a good measure of sadness that this long journey is coming to its end. Anxiety too, to balance that which we felt before we left, about what it will be like to go back to “real“ life, when this life has felt more than real. There has been something essential about being outside all day every day, and simply walking, which is hard to put into words.
One of the anxieties I feel is about having to go back to a life in which there are so many demands on my brain. Each day of this journey has ended with physical exhaustion. With stretching, good eating and decent overnight rest, though, this has evaporated, leaving us refreshed, invigorated and ready to go the next day, stronger and fitter. This is so different from our normal lives where there is a mental exhaustion caused by constant and competing demands on our lives which leaves us, like so many people, wrung out at the end of days and finding it hard to sleep. Stephen described the way we have spent much of our walking days as having a brain on standby, and we have experienced this as a healthy mode of being which has meant that we have given more weight to sensory stimuli, the sight, sound and smell of the natural world, feeling ourselves being in the world physically rather than being consumed by mental exertion. A kind, in other words, of permanent mindfulness.
This morning as we walked north on quiet roads towards the northern coast, cool mist blurred the edges of the horizons on every side.
Curlews called to each other as they flew above damp meadows full of long grasses, buttercups, and cow parsley.
Read buntings chattered in the willows on the edges of Loch Watten, today’s clouds of flies which sustain the natural population of brown trout in the loch and in the rivers not yet hatched.
Alan had given us a lift down to the Brown Trout pub last night, and detoured a little to show us the loch, where he keeps a boat for fishing. Both he and Alan and Gary last night spoke of the windy conditions over the last week which have created waves of up to four feet on the loch making it dangerous to fish for trout from a boat. Today only a very light breeze ruffled the surface, and I hope they had a better day’s sport.
The last section of our End-to-End journey was to be all on roads, which earlier in the walk would have been excruciating, but which today, our sixtieth day walking, we took in our stride (as it were). Andy Robinson’s suggested route in the guidebook ‘comes with a health warning’, taking you along the pathless coastline, and he makes mention of having to pick a careful way between fences and crumbling cliff edges ‘which on occasion are uncomfortably close to each other’. David texted last night from the coastline slightly further south to say that there had been some hairy moments yesterday, and that the sun had brought out all the snakes. He nearly stepped on one. So we chose a safer route, possibly a faster one, and possibly also more varied than the coastal scramble.
It first took us past rough pastureland for cows and sheep, and we meditated on the number of cows we have met on this journey and shared fields with, some more friendly, some indifferent, and some downright belligerent. Today’s were curious, but not enough to come closer or to move away. As though we were already vanishing from the path.
There have been many breeds of sheep too: there was the one that looked exactly like Eddie Izzard, the ones with bizarrely long ears like rabbits, ones with spectacular displays of horns, and the strange ‘ghost sheep’ looking as though they have black holes for eyes and mouth.
This made us reflect in turn on the number of animals we have seen over the past ten weeks. Apart from farm animals there have been vey few. We are sad, for example, not to have seen any red squirrels, although the pine marten on the peanuts in Invergarry was a thrill to see, and Stephen’s possible otter in Westmoreland. I think I saw one yesterday too, out of the corner of my eye on the edge of the peatlands diving into a ditch. We have seen a few deer, but in the Highlands not as many as we might have hoped.
The birds however have been wonderful. We made a list for ourselves as we walked of the more unusual ones that are not part of our daily life at home: osprey, dipper, curlew, lapwing, reed bunting, snipe, golden plover, chough, egret, heron, cuckoo, marsh harrier, oyster-catcher, red kite, yellow and grey wagtail, stonechat, kittiwake, black-throated diver, great skua, black guillemot…
Above one field there flew together curlew, lapwings and heron, three of the four birds which have been our nearly constant companions in the landscape. We needed only the lark to begin singing to make up the fourth. And sure enough when the sun came out at about 11 o’clock, the larks began singing unstintingly. The cuckoos do not seem to have made it this far north, although we have heard them pretty constantly all the way from Exmoor up to Lairg. Now the breeding season is over, the birds have started to flock again, and from one field a flock of twenty-two lapwings all took off together. As we passed a couple of houses next to the road a man released a loft-ful of pigeons, and they wheeled round the garden, above us, and the fields beyond. We realised with a pang that they were homing pigeons.
Perhaps my biggest most consistent pleasure has been seeing spring unfurl in the verges and hedgerows, moving through the flowering season of so many wildflowers, trees and shrubs. The elderflower is still fully in flower this far north, although the hawthorn flowers here are shrivelled, and the berries starting to form. We had an honour guard of marsh thistle with its dark leaves and cluster of purple flowers, but the Scottish thistle is tantalisingly still in bud. There was one single exemplar in flower, too far into a field beyond a barbed wire fence to be able to photograph, with tufts of sheep’s wool caught on its prickles. I wanted to remember that here, as I know that so many tiny details of each day will disappear unless I fix them in words. I have remembered that I forgot to record in the blog the heron that we saw flying through the trees on Loch Lomond: an almost impossible task for a bird with such a wide wingspan. It negotiated the treetrunks and branches with half-folded wings, simultaneously ungainly and graceful, putting us in mind of a pterodactyl.
The sun coming out in the late morning blazed sharpness and vividness into the colours of the flowers by the side of the road, the many channels of water making the growth along each bank thick and generous.
After a while we left the farmland behind, and had a brief stop for our last cheese and chorizo lunch standing in a gateway opening onto heather and rush peatland. It felt much more familiar, given recent days, than the more domesticated farmland. A faint echo of the Highlands. The peaty ditch by the side of the road was bridged at one point by bleached wooden planks. They must have been there for a while because there was a heath spotted-orchid in flower, seeded from the masses of orchids over the fence in the boggy heath.
On the opposite side of the road were marsh orchids, a beautiful deep cerise.
We reckoned that we would be able to see the sea from the highest point on this long, long road. Looking back the way we had come the road disappeared into the far distance.
We seemed to have been walking forever with no sign that we were approaching any kind of an end, although according to the map we were close to the coast.
Looking forward there was a plantation on the crest of what we thought would be the final hill. I was momentarily distracted by a beautiful pool with bog bean and aquatic bistort, and azure damselflies patrolling its surface.
But then we crested the hill, and in front of us – in front of us lay the sea, the sea at last, not so far away. The impact was surprisingly strong, and I felt genuinely choked by the sight. So blue in the sunshine, so beautiful. We had walked so very far to reach it.
From this point we had about another two hours’ walking to get to John O’Groats, and we had the sea on our left hand the whole time, like a bannister rail to hold onto.
There were scattered houses and small communities, all looking north towards the sea. One house had peat turves stacked up a little haphazardly in front of it. I have never smelled a peat fire and I wondered what it is like.
There were plenty of modern houses, all pebble-dashed against the elements, and some fascinating old buildings, speaking to a different community and a different kind of economy. A church converted into a farm building, itself now derelict,
And a mill by a stream leading straight to the sea.
And then the towers of old John O’Groats hotel came into view.
And suddenly we found ourselves walking down the short road to the ferry and the slipway, and then, then we were there at the signpost at last, welling up, and absolutely overwhelmed, and so, so very happy.
A lovely couple, there to meet a friend who had cycled all the way from Land’s End, took photos for us and congratulated us and hugged us.
Then we sat for a while on our own, looking out to sea and drinking in the view and the air and the sea and the wind and the sea, and the signpost right at the edge of the land which echoed the one far to the south which we had left on Good Friday.
And which was somehow connected to it by an invisible thread across the landscape, along which we had walked, the two of us together, long and wonderful days.
There was a flurry of phone calls and texts and posts – it has been joyful and celebratory, and Dan phoned through some surprise drinks behind the bar in our hotel. We leave tomorrow for home, a two-day journey by road and rail in which we will have time to start to process the journey as a whole, perhaps in one last blogpost. It will seem very strange not to be walking and probably somehow wrong. But we shall have the five missing days to plan for completion in the summer, and a long list of places that we walked through, too, too fast, that we shall have to visit again, more slowly this time.